A proper understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires exposing numerous myths about its origins and the reasons it persists.
Myth #5 – The Arab nations threatened Israel with annihilation in 1967 and 1973
The fact of the matter is that it was Israel that fired the first shot of the “Six Day War”. Early on the morning of June 5, Israel launched fighters in a surprise attack on Egypt (then the United Arab Republic), and successfully decimated the Egyptian air force while most of its planes were still on the ground.
It is virtually obligatory for this attack to be described by commentators today as “preemptive”. But to have been “preemptive”, by definition, there must have been an imminent threat of Egyptian aggression against Israel. Yet there was none.
It is commonly claimed that President Nasser’s bellicose rhetoric, blockade of the Straits of Tiran, movement of troops into the Sinai Peninsula, and expulsion of U.N. peacekeeping forces from its side of the border collectively constituted such an imminent threat.
Yet, both U.S. and Israeli intelligence assessed at the time that the likelihood Nasser would actually attack was low. The CIA assessed that Israel had overwhelming superiority in force of arms, and would, in the event of a war, defeat the Arab forces within two weeks; within a week if Israel attacked first, which is what actually occurred.
It must be kept in mind that Egypt had been the victim of aggression by the British, French, and Israelis in the 1956 “Suez Crisis”, following Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. In that war, the three aggressor nations conspired to wage war upon Egypt, which resulted in an Israeli occupation of the Sinai Peninsula. Under U.S. pressure, Israel withdrew from the Sinai in 1957, but Egypt had not forgotten the Israeli aggression.
Moreover, Egypt had formed a loose alliance with Syria and Jordan, with each pledging to come to the aid of the others in the event of a war with Israel. Jordan had criticized Nasser for not living up to that pledge after the Israeli attack on West Bank village of Samu the year before, and his rhetoric was a transparent attempt to regain face in the Arab world.
That Nasser’s positioning was defensive, rather than projecting an intention to wage an offensive against Israel, was well recognized among prominent Israelis. As Avraham Sela of the Shalem Center has observed, “The Egyptian buildup in Sinai lacked a clear offensive plan, and Nasser’s defensive instructions explicitly assumed an Israeli first strike.”
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin acknowledged that “In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.”
Yitzhak Rabin, who would also later become Prime Minister of Israel, admitted in 1968 that “I do not think Nasser wanted war. The two divisions he sent to the Sinai would not have been sufficient to launch an offensive war. He knew it and we knew it.”
Israelis have also acknowledged that their own rhetoric at the time about the “threat” of “annihilation” from the Arab states was pure propaganda.
General Chaim Herzog, commanding general and first military governor of the occupied West Bank following the war, admitted that “There was no danger of annihilation. Israeli headquarters never believed in this danger.”
General Ezer Weizman similarly said, “There was never a danger of extermination. This hypothesis had never been considered in any serious meeting.”
Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev acknowledged, “We were not threatened with genocide on the eve of the Six-Day War, and we had never thought of such possibility.”
Israeli Minister of Housing Mordechai Bentov has also acknowledged that “The entire story of the danger of extermination was invented in every detail, and exaggerated a posteriori to justify the annexation of new Arab territory.”
In 1973, in what Israelis call the “Yom Kippur War”, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise offensive to retake the Sinai and the Golan Heights, respectively. This joint action is popularly described in contemporaneous accounts as an “invasion” of or act of “aggression” against Israel.
Yet, as already noted, following the June ’67 war, the U.N. Security Council passed resolution 242 calling upon Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. Israel, needless to say, refused to do so and has remained in perpetual violation of international law ever since.
During the 1973 war, Egypt and Syria thus “invaded” their own territory, then under illegal occupation by Israel. The corollary of the description of this war as an act of Arab aggression implicitly assumes that the Sinai Peninsula, Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza Strip were Israeli territory. This is, needless to say, a grossly false assumption that demonstrates the absolutely prejudicial and biased nature of mainstream commentary when it comes to the Israeli-Arab conflict.
This false narrative fits in with the larger overall narrative, equally fallacious, of Israeli as the “victim” of Arab intransigence and aggression. This narrative, largely unquestioned in the West, flips reality on its head.